Human Events Blog

Santorum Pulls Ahead of Romney Nationwide

 

A new poll from the New York Times and CBS News shows Rick Santorum pulling ahead of Mitt Romney among primary voters nationwide, while Newt Gingrich hits bottom:

Rick Santorum 30%

Mitt Romney 27%

Ron Paul 12%

Newt Gingrich 10%

The Times notes that Santorum’s lead falls within the margin of error for the poll, so he’s essentially tied with Romney.  A Pew Research poll earlier in the week discovered a similar thin lead for Santorum over Romney, 30-28, while Gallup put Romney ahead by a hair. 

Gingrich was far behind at 16 percent in both of these polls.  For the moment at least, it looks to be a two-man race between Romney and Santorum, and it’s a dead heat.  A good 60 percent of the poll respondents said they were still open to changing their minds.

Digging deeper into its poll, the Times found Santorum’s surge was “largely fueled by increased support from self-described conservatives, evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters.  The poll finds the former Pennsylvania senator backed by nearly 4 in 10 voters from each of these groups; last month, no candidate was the clear favorite among these voters.”

What prompted this huge Tea Party surge to Santorum?  He’s not really the Spartacus of fiscal restraint.  After Ron Paul called him a “big-government, big-spending individual” during a January debate, the Club For Growth did a bit of fact-checking, and found Paul’s specific allegations “mostly true”: Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times, voted for No Child Left Behind and the budget-busting Medicare prescription drug benefit, and voted against the National Right to Work Act of 1995. 

The Club’s assessment balanced this against some significant votes in favor of fiscal responsibility by Santorum, including the line-item veto and a balanced-budget amendment, but concluded that “on balance, Santorum’s record in Congress is generally one of favoring bigger government and more spending.”  His presidential platform is more about re-purposing Big Government than tearing it down.  That seems rather contrary to the Tea Party creed.

I suspect a good deal of this Tea Party rally to Santorum is driven by tactical considerations and character.  A lot of people like Santorum, in a way they don’t like Romney or Gingrich.  Affection breeds trust.  They accept Santorum’s apology for some of his past votes, such as voting against right-to-work laws, and they believe him when he says he would do things differently as President.  This is the level of trust Romney wants to achieve for his own changes of heart, but hasn’t quite managed yet. 

It helps that Santorum is on the right side of the balanced budget issue, a Big Picture stance that moves Tea Party voters to forgive some congressional spending apostasies.  He was for the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, and if he could make something like that happen in his presidency, it would be a victory for fiscal sanity with far-reaching implications.

Tea Party voters are also practical in nature.  The entire point of the movement, as it rather spectacularly demonstrated in 2010, is to change things, not just assemble for group gripe sessions.  The perception that Gingrich has flamed out, and Paul is unelectable, leaves Santorum as the most practical alternative to Romney.  A lot of Tea Party voters are not okay with Mitt Romney, in part because he dismissed them at first, then made rather clumsy overtures for their votes.  Santorum may not agree with them on everything, but he hasn’t disrespected them. 

The Tea Party also harbors a large concentration of the fear that Romney cannot beat Obama, while Santorum has seemed increasingly effective as a general-election candidate over the past few debates and primaries.  His emphasis on appealing to blue-collar Reagan Democrats strikes many as a wise strategy.  It seems very unlikely that Romney could implement that strategy as effectively.

These feelings are not universal among Tea Party voters, of course, and they might not last.  Santorum has really just breached the threshold of appearing as a serious candidate with a real shot at getting all the way to the White House.  Any damage to his general-election viability could push him back under that threshold, drowning his chances in the turbulent waters of this unusual primary.  To consolidate his surge into a front-running position, Santorum needs to survive an incoming round of carefully targeted attacks on everything that made the Tea Party take him seriously.

 


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